What are the testing and maintenance requirements for smoke alarms?

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Fire and rescue services across the UK are called out to over 600,000 fires each year. These lead to over 17,000 injuries and more than 800 deaths annually. Around 50,000 of these occur within the home, affecting both owner occupied and rental properties, and many of the rest affect commercial premises.

The stark fact is that you are twice as likely to die if your home catches fire and it has no smoke alarm than you are if one or more alarms are fitted. A smoke alarm system gives occupants of any building an early warning, vastly improving their chances of escaping in time. In short, investing in smoke alarms could save your home and your life, as well as those of your family, tenants or employees. Many injuries and deaths could be prevented if people were always able to get out of the property in time.

This article will explain what types of smoke alarms there are and how to test and maintain them. Any instructions provided by the manufacturer should be followed regarding the fitting and positioning of smoke alarms.

What is a smoke alarm?

A smoke alarm is a device capable of detecting a fire and issuing a clearly audible warning – literally raising the alarm. This is generally a very loud shrill sound that warns of a fire in its early stages.

Types of smoke alarm

There are four kinds of widely available smoke alarm:

Ionisation

Ionisation smoke alarms are cheap and widely available. They work by detecting small particles of smoke, especially those produced during flaming wood fires, before there is very thick smoke. They are a little less sensitive to slower burning fires which give off more smoke before there are flames. They can also be a bit of a nuisance when placed in or near kitchens, a common complaint being that they can go off whenever a toaster is in use.

Optical

Optical smoke alarms are more costly, and can detect the larger smoke particles typically produced by slow-burning fires – examples include overhearing wiring or foam upholstery. Optical alarms are less likely than ionisation alarms to go off when the toaster is used, but are still not the best choice for use within kitchens.

Heat

Heat alarms work by detecting any temperature increase caused by a fire. They do not detect smoke, so are more suitable for kitchens. They cover only small areas, however, so several heat alarms may be required for larger rooms.

Combined smoke and heat alarms

Optical and heat smoke alarms can be combined within one unit to increase the speed of detection while lowering the incidence of false alarms. Separate optical and heat alarms can also be installed in different rooms within a property and be interconnected via radio-interlinking or wiring.

How are smoke alarms powered?

Most smoke alarms look similar and are either mains or battery powered. Mains alarms will generally have battery backup in case the mains power supply is interrupted. Most smoke alarms now have silencing buttons, for use where a false alarm has been raised, such as during cooking.

Standard battery-powered smoke alarms require a new battery every year, or there are smoke alarms complete with sealed 10-year batteries. Mains-powered smoke alarms most installed in any newbuild, or following a major property refurbishment. They should have battery back-up, and rechargeable lithium batteries are preferable as they will last for the alarm’s lifetime. Mains smoke alarms must be installed by a qualified expert.

A combined smoke and heat alarm system is the safest and most practical type, as they are less likely to raise false alarms. They may even include an escape light which comes on as the alarm sounds helping you to find your way out as well as alerting those who cannot hear perfectly. There are also specialist smoke alarms for the deaf, with a strobe light that flashes and a pad beneath the pillow that vibrates.

Maintaining domestic smoke alarms

Once installed, domestic smoke alarms tend to need very little in the way of maintenance. Always follow the manufacturer’s or installer’s instructions, an in any case it’s well worth taking just a few minutes each year to ensure your smoke alarm(s) are working effectively.

Testing your smoke alarms when the clocks go forward or back is a great way to ensure they are checked twice per year. At this point, you should also vacuum the alarm gently using an appropriate soft brush attachment; this will remove any dust that has collected within the sensors. Once per year – again, perhaps when the clocks go forward in spring or back in autumn – change the battery, unless you have a 10-year alarm. If you have the latter, the entire unit should be replaced every decade.

Smoke alarms in rental properties

Landlords must provide smoke alarms on each floor of rental properties, and they must be in working order after installation or at the beginning of a new tenancy. After this, their testing and maintenance is the responsibility of the tenant.

Testing and maintaining commercial smoke alarms

All commercial premises should have an appropriate fire detection system installed, to detect any outbreak of fire and warn occupants of the building. If no doubt, a Fire Risk Assessment can determine whether you need to instal fire detection systems and what type(s). A Fire Risk Assessment is the cornerstone of any commercial fire safety plan, and commercial properties have a lawful obligation to conduct one. This can include the installation of a smoke alarm system that complies with British Standard BS5839.

BS5839 and the government recommend the routine inspection of fire alarm systems at least every six months. If you have large commercial premises, a quarterly service may be more appropriate.
The British Safety standard lays out a code of good practice for fire detection and fire alarm installation, and it also covers the design of the system.

Trust the experts

Whether you own your own home, are a landlord or have commercial premises, installing, maintaining and testing smoke alarms could save lives – including your own. Please get in touch with Bundy’s without delay if we can help with this in any way.

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